Tag Archive: cognitive ethology

Frans de Waal is not an animal rights advocate but his work is more important than a million academic books on animal rights, and I’m a big fan of his research and writings. The humanist Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall long ago and will never be put back again in terms of the absolute uniqueness it tried to assign itself in strict opposition to all other life forms. But since we ourselves are animals, since we began a new branch of primate evolution some 7 million years ago, and since chimpanzees are our closest biological relatives, closer to us genetically than they are to gorillas and orangutans; it follows that we share quite a few traits in common including tribal behavior and a proclivity for violence, We have learned that Homo rapiens is not unique in toll invention and tool use, in using language, in having culture, or, as this article discusses, having concepts like justice (its “justice” — not “just us”). Where, after all, would we acquire such capacities, if not from evolution and our closest biological relatives. It is more than ironic that we credit ourselves with capacities that other animals invented, and we often shaped in more “sophisticated” ways, such that, we are, as Darwin argued, different from other animals “in degree, not kind.”

On these issues, see my essay and my video lecture; also see the great work of Marc Bekoff, another pioneer in the field of cognitive ethology


Elizabeth Landau, CNN, January 19, 2013

You might recognize prominent primatologist Frans de Waal from lectures he has given about his research on primate behavior, which have been popularized on YouTube.

His face is familiar to chimpanzees, too; some chimps that he knew as babies still recognize him even after decades apart, he said.

“Chimpanzees have the advantage that you cannot ask them questions, so you have to watch (their) behavior to see what they do,” says de Waal, director of Emory University’s Living Links Center, in his Dutch-accented voice that is both gentle and authoritative.

He adds, with dry humor: “With humans, you can ask questions and you get all sorts of answers I don’t trust, so I prefer to work with chimpanzees for that reason.”

Living Links is part of the oldest and largest primate center in the United States: The Yerkes National Primate Research Center, a secluded grassy area in suburban Atlanta where humans work in office trailers and other animals play in open-air compounds.

De Waal, who has been at the center for more than 20 years, has made a career out of finding links between primate and human behavior, particularly in the areas of morality and empathy.

You might think of “morality” as special for humans, but there are elements of it that are found in the animal kingdom, says de Wall — namely, fairness and reciprocity. His latest study, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that chimpanzees may show some of the same sensibility about fairness that humans do.

The popular belief that the natural world is based on competition is a simplification, de Waal says. The strength of one’s immune system, and the ability to find food, are also crucial. And many animals survive by cooperating.

“The struggle for life is not necessarily literally a struggle,” he said. “Humans are a highly cooperative species, and we can see in our close relatives where that comes from.”

Mammals such as wolves, orcas and elephants need their groups to survive, and empathy and cooperation are survival mechanisms. De Waal discusses these mechanisms in his 2009 book “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.”

“We think that empathy evolved to take care of others that you need to take care of, especially, of course, between mother and offspring, which is universal in all the mammals,” de Waal said.

Laboratory chimps get a new lease on life

What it means to be fair

De Waal isn’t sure that his monkeys have what a philosopher would call a “concept of justice” in an intellectual sense. But the emotional reactions researchers have observed indicates that there is, at a more basic level, a sense of justice among them.

Among the questions he investigates: If an animal gets more than another, is there is a feeling that this is somehow unjust? And if one shares food with another, is there an expectation of returning the favor?

In a 2008 study, de Waal and colleagues put two capuchin monkeys side by side and gave them a simple task to complete: Giving a rock to the experimenter. They were given cucumbers as a reward for executing the task, and the monkeys obliged. But if one of the monkeys was given grapes, something interesting happened:

As observed in a popular video that de Waal showed in his TED talk, after receiving the first piece of cucumber, the capuchin monkey gives the experimenter a rock as expected. But upon seeing that the other monkey has grapes, the capuchin monkey throws the next piece of cucumber that it is given back at the researcher.

Like children, the monkeys feel they “need to get the same thing as somebody else,” de Waal said.

Based on experiments such as these, de Waal came to believe that the sense of fairness observed in monkeys is egocentric. The capuchin monkeys were upset, selfishly, when they didn’t get the grapes that their neighbors received. De Waal believed this model of fairness would apply to chimpanzees also. Chimpanzees are so closely related to us that they share 99% of their DNA with humans.

But the new study, which compares chimpanzees to young children, makes de Waal rethink that view.

“Now with this experiment, we are thinking that they have a higher level, where they worry about reward division in general,” he said, “and it’s now unclear how they differ from humans.”

The new study: A human sense of fairness?

In the new study, de Waal and colleagues had chimpanzees and, separately, young children, play an “ultimatum game.” This is “the gold standard of fairness for humans” because it has been played all over the world, by people in different cultures, to show that, universally, humans appear to have a sense of fairness.

Here’s a video of the experiment

The basic structure of an ultimatum game is that there are rewards that can be divided between two individuals. One proposes how to divide them and the other accepts or rejects this offer. If the receiver rejects, no rewards are given out.

Human trials have shown that people usually propose a generous division of the goodies, such as half and half or 60% and 40%, de Waal said.

In the version used in the new experiment, six adult chimpanzees and 20 human children, between ages 2 and 7, participated.

The setup was such that a token could be traded for equal rewards for both partners, and a token that would give more goodies to the partner who made the choice.

In some trials, one partner proposes a reward division to the other via a token, and the receiver must accept the token in order for both parties to get rewards. In others, the partner’s acceptance is not required.

The researchers found that chimpanzees and children both tended to make decisions about splitting rewards similarly to adult humans. In the situation where the responder could accept or reject the division of rewards, both chimpanzees and children tended to split the rewards with their partners. But when the partner was not given the opportunity to reject the proposal, chimps and kids tended to choose the selfish arrangement — a token that favored the chooser.

Controversial results

So, does this mean that chimpanzees show the same sense of fairness as humans? Keith Jensen of the University of Manchester, who has conducted similar experiments in the past, isn’t so sure. His results did not show that chimpanzees have a sense of fairness.

Jensen is concerned about the results of this new study because it’s not clear that the responders knew that they could reject offers. None of the participants, human or chimp, ever rejected the offers of their partners.

“The fact that responders never rejected nonzero offers suggests that they were not sensitive to unfairness but were only motivated by getting food for themselves, regardless of the intentions of the proposers or the consequences for them,” he said in an e-mail.

But de Waal said that responders did display negative reactions in response to some offers. Chimps would spit water and the children would say something like “You’re getting more than me” in response to a selfish offer. “That indicates that they know what’s going on,” he said.

Jensen also criticized the design of the experiment because participants were primarily interacting with the researchers, not each other. Although one chimp had to pass a token to the other, this could be just a necessary step to get food, not a sign of agreement with the offer, he said. But de Waal stands by the study.

There are very few studies of this nature on chimpanzees compared to in humans, and more research should be done to explore the nature of the sense of fairness of human relatives.

Meet one of the oldest chimpanzees in captivity

The secret lives of primates

There’s still a lot that humans don’t know about their close relatives.

De Waal has made some fascinating inroads, however, including a study showing that chimpanzees can look at the behind of another chimpanzee and match it to the corresponding face, provided it’s a chimp they know. This shows that the chimps have “whole-body knowledge,” a concept that has not been rigorously tested in humans, he said. The research won him a 2012 Ig Nobel prize, honoring research that is both humorous and thought-provoking, shared with Jennifer Pokorny.

And he has also studied yawn contagion, the phenomenon of one person yawning in response to another person’s yawn. Those who are sensitive to yawns tend to be more empathetic people, and friends and family members yawn more with each other than with strangers. This has also been shown in chimpanzees, who will yawn if another chimp they know yawns too.

But de Waal isn’t sure, for instance, why three females were patrolling their compound when CNN visited in October. Males, though, have a clear purpose in patrolling: In the wild, they do it to protect their territory, de Waal said. Perhaps, he postulates, the females are mimicking the males.

Chimp males compete with each other regularly, but also come together to repair their relationships, de Waal said. This pattern of behavior is seen in human families and in the workplace — these cycles of one-upmanship and reconciliation.

“There are many animals who are very good at cooperation, and I’m personally not convinced that we humans are necessarily best at that, but we are very good at it, that’s for sure.”

His next book, coming out this spring, is called “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates,” which brings together evidence that there are biological roots in human fairness and addresses the role of religion in society.


See also:

Chimps Have a Sense of Fairness

This talk was given at Sapienza University of Rome, September 5, 2012. 

Photos of the talk

Marc Bekoff,  Psychology Today, August 10, 2012

Every now and again I receive an email message I ignore after reading the subject line. I know I’m not alone in following this rule of thumb, but today I broke down and opened a message the subject line of which read “Scientists Declare: Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious“. I honestly thought it was a joke, likely from one of my favorite newspapers, The Onion. However, it wasn’t.

My colleague Michael Mountain published a summary of a recent meeting held in Cambridge, England at which “Science leaders have reached a critical consensus: Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too.” At this gathering, called The Francis Crick Memorial Conference, a number of scientists presented evidence that led to this self-obvious conclusion. It’s difficult to believe that those who have shared their homes with companion animals didn’t already know this. And, of course, many renowned and award-winning field researchers had reached the same conclusion years ago (see also).

A 5 1/2-year-old chimpanzee named Ayumu performs a memory test with randomly-placed consecutive Arabic numerals, which are later masked, accurately duplicating the lineup on a touch screen computer. Chimps could memorise the nine numerals much faster and more accurately than human adults.

Michael Mountain was as incredulous as I and many others about something we already knew. It’s interesting to note that of the 15 notables who spoke at this conference only one has actually done studies of wild animals. It would have been nice to hear from researchers who have conducted long-term studies of wild animals, including great apes, other nonhuman primates, social carnivores, cetaceans, rodents, and birds, for example, to add to the database. Be that as it may, I applaud their not so surprising conclusion and now I hope it will be used to protect animals from being treated abusively and inhumanely.

Some might say we didn’t really know that other animals were conscious but this is an incredilby naive view given what we know about the neurobiology and cognitive and emotional lives of other animals. Indeed, it was appeals to these very data that led to the conclusions of this group of scientists. But did we really need a group of internationally recognized scientists to tell us that thedata are really okay?  Yes and no, but let’s thank them for doing this.

I agree with Michael Mountain that “It’s a really important statement that will be used as evidence by those who are pushing for scientists to develop a more humane relationship with animals. It’s harder, for example, to justify experiments on nonhumans when you know that they are conscious beings and not just biological machines. Some of the conclusions reached in this declaration are the product of scientists who, to this day, still conduct experiments on animals in captivity, including dolphins, who are among the most intelligent species on Earth. Their own declaration will now be used as evidence that it’s time to stop using these animals in captivity and start finding new ways of making a living.”

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

The scientists went as far as to write up what’s called The Cambridge Decalration on Consciousness that basically declares that this prominent international group of scientists agree that “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” They could also have included fish, for whom the evidence supporting sentience and consciousness is also compelling (see also).

So, what are we going to do with what we know (and have known)?

It’s fair to ask what are these scientists and others going to do now that they agree that consicousness is widespread in the animal kingdom. We know, for example, that mice, rats, and chickens display empathy but this knowledge hasn’t been factored into the Federal Animal Welfare Act in the United States.

I’m frankly astounded that these data and many other findings about animal cognition and animal emotions have been ignored by those who decide on regulations about the use and abuse of other animals. However, the Treaty of Lisbon, passed by member states of the European Union that went into force on December 1, 2009, recognizes that “In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.”

Let’s applaud The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness and The Treaty of Lisbon and work hard to get animals the protection from invasive research and other forms of abuse, in many cases horriifically inhumane, they deserve.

Some recent essays I’ve written point out that there still are some people who feel comfortable killing individuals who they call “unneeded” or “surplus” animals and at least one animal welfarist, Oxford University’s Marian Dawkins, continued as of a few months ago to claim we still don’t know if other animals are conscious and that we should “remain skeptical and agnostic [about consciousness] … Militantly agnostic if necessary, because this keeps alive the possibility that a large number of species have some sort of conscious experiences … For all we know, many animals, not just the clever ones and not just the overtly emotional ones, also have conscious experiences.”

Perhaps what I call “Dawkins’ Dangerous Idea” will now finally be shelved given the conclusions of the Cambridge gathering. I frankly don’t see how anyone who has worked closely with any of a wide array of animals or who lives with a companion animal(s) could remain uncertain and agnostic about whether they are conscious.

It’s said that repetition is boring conversation but there’s now a wealth of scientific data that makes skepticism, and surely agnosticism, to be anti-science and harmful to animals. Now, at last, the prestigious Cambridge group shows this to be so. Bravo for them! So, let’s all work together to use this information to stop the abuse of millions upon millions of conscious animals in the name of science, education, food, amusement and entertainment, and clothing. We really owe it to them to use what we know on their behalf and to factor compassion and empathy into our treatment of these amazing beings.

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